Gut Health

Why Is Good Gut Health So Important – The Inside Story?

By Helen Bond, Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant to VSL#3

Let’s be honest, when it comes to talking about our gut health us Brits have traditionally been extremely shy. Nowadays, good gut health is the phrase on everyone’s lips - and for good reason! Over the past decade or so, the scientific research has really started to stack up, suggesting that the health of our gut - or to be more precise, the influence of the trillions of different microbes living inside our gut – might have far-reaching effects on our nations physical and mental wellbeing. This newfound knowledge is transforming how we can look after ourselves better - we’re at the dawn of new era in modern medicine, where gut health will most likely become the cornerstone to many health issues.

While there's still much undiscovered about the skill set of our gut microbes – the puzzles of ‘how can they help us look after our health and fight disease?’, ‘why some microbes are better for us than others?’, and ‘how can we modify them to benefit our health?’ - one thing is for sure, this so-called ‘forgotten organ’ should no longer be overlooked or unappreciated.

So, if you’re not already aware of the importance of gut health, it’s time you pay a little more attention to what’s happening within! In this blog, dietitian and nutrition consultant to VSL#3, Helen Bond explains why we should all be taking better care of the health of our gut and the good ‘gut bugs’ that live there. She will also demystify some of the gut health ‘jargon’, and equip you with some key take home messages to help keep your gut happy and good ‘gut bugs’ well fed. 

Your Key Gut Health Vocabulary

To better understand why gut health is so important, it’s good to have an understanding of the different scientific terms. So below are some words you need to add to your health vocabulary: 

  • Gut microbe (microorganism) - Any microscopic living organism including bacteria, parasites, viruses, and fungi living in our gut.
  • Gut microbiota - The collective name for an ensemble of microbes that inhabit our gut (Formerly known as our Gut Flora or Microflora).
  • Gut microbiome - All of the genes inside our microbial cells that determine how they behave and how they interact functionally and metabolically with our body’s cells.  
  • Metabolome - Refers to a collection of substances, including amino acids, enzymes, vitamins and minerals, and more within and produced by our gut microbes.
  • Dysbiosis - An imbalance in the composition of our gut microbiota.
  • Probiotics - Live microorganisms that, when taken in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit.
  • Prebiotics - Non-digestible food ingredients that feed and promote the growth of beneficial microbes in our gut.

Let’s Explore The Gut….

When we talk about our ‘gut’, we’re referring to the functioning of our entire gastrointestinal tract or digestive tract – comprising essentially of one nine metre long twisting tube that transports food from entry, in our mouth, all the way down our oesophagus, through our stomach, into the small intestine, and finally into our large intestine in preparation for the exit at the other end.

A healthy gut is so important in so many ways. First off, it’s vital for nutrient absorption and fluid uptake from the digestion of our food and drink we eat, therefore if it’s not working right, it can lead to an array of nutritional shortfalls and negative health consequences.

Secondly, our gut also forms a protective barrier between the outside world and our insides, which means that what’s inside our gut is still actually outside’ our body, until it has passed through our gut wall defense barrier, and into our bloodstream. It’s no wonder why it’s armed with 70 per cent of our body’s immune system to defend us against infection and disease!

And lastly, but by no means least, as it’s one of the main reasons we’ve become more interested in the importance of our gut heath again, is that it’s alive - an estimated 1000 trillion microorganisms or more, call our gut home – weighing up to 5lbs, and appear to benefit our health and wellbeing in lots of different ways. While bacteria are by far our biggest residents, our gut also hosts fungi, viruses, parasites, and even primitive life forms like archaea, so let Helen get you better acquainted with your tiny inhabitants down there: 

“Did you know that bacteria and other microbes in our body out number our own human cells by about ten to one?”

Gut Microbes: Friends Or Enemies?

With the overuse of antibiotics, and all of the disinfectants, hand sanitisers, antibacterial cleaners and wipes out there, we’ve been brainwashed to think of bacteria and other microbes as our enemies - harmful, sickness causing bugs that need to be eradicated from our lives. The truth is that apart from pathogens that can cause disease, most are not detrimental to us at all. In fact, they’re essential if we’re to stay healthy physically and mentally, as we cannot survive without them!

Virtually every organ and system in our body is able to function well because of the different microbe communities that live on and in us – in our mouth and up our nose, on the surface of our skin and of course, inside our gut where the collection of microbes is most varied and populated.

It is commonly quoted that around 1,000 different species of bacteria can be found in our gut microbiota, but everyone typically has only around 100-170 at any point in time. And, just like our fingerprints, our gut microbiota is one-of-a-kind. No two fingerprints are the same, and no two people have the same gut microbiota.

What’s important to remember is that your gut is constantly changing and evolving from birth over the course of our life, and adapts to the food we eat, and when and how much we eat, the drugs we take, how we live our lives and our environment. While there is no one ‘ideal’ gut microbiota for optimal wellbeing, study after study is showing that the richer and more diverse our gut microbiota, the better it is for our health - so it’s really in our best interests to look after it and help it thrive! 

What Does Our Gut Microbiota Do For Us?  

  • It’s still only early days in trying to understand all of the many, many functions that our gut microbiota do for us - but here is just a snapshot of what we know so far…. 
  • Helps our bodies to digest food components that our small intestine cannot digest, such as dietary fibre. 
  • Helps with the production of a range of vitamins, including B vitamins, like Biotin for healthy energy release and a healthy nervous system and vitamin K for blood clotting, and also amino acids (protein building blocks). 
  • Helps manufacture neurotransmitters - ‘chemical messages’ - including ‘the feel good hormone’ serotonin. 
  • Influences our appetite hormones such a ghrelin and leptin. 
  • Breaks down dietary fibre to produces short chain fatty acids, like butyrate, which helps to reduce inflammation, and is thought to be beneficial for the health of our bowel cells. 
  • Supports our gut immune system to fight off invaders, like pathogenic bacteria that can cause disease. 
  • Communicates with our brain and other vital organs.  
  • Helps maintain the wholeness of our protective gut barrier. 

How Does Our Gut Microbiota Affect Our Health?

More than 2000 years ago the Greek physician Hippocrates declared: “All disease begins in the gut”. Though not all disease originates in our gut, some of his early wisdom has stood the test of time. Research to date suggests the state of our gut microbiota may influence a multitude of diseases and conditions, from general immunity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), metabolic syndrome, obesity, type 2 diabetes, stiffness of the arteries in heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, and even mental health problems, such as low mood and depression and age-related brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. 

“The More Diverse Our Gut Microbes, The Better It Is For Our Health…” 

There’s so much more that we’ve yet to learn to fully understand the role our gut microbiota on our health and wellbeing. For example, we don’t yet know whether an ’out of whack’ or imbalanced gut microbiota causes disease and influences our behaviour and emotions, or whether this happens as a result. Either way, as the scientific world continues to make amazing discoveries about the power of the gut microbiota to promote health, it makes sense to look after our gut microbe population, because in return, they’ll help take care of us.  

How Can We Best Nurture Our Gut Microbiota For Better Health?

There are lots of things that can upset the balance of microbes within our gut. For example, taking unnecessary antibiotics and medications, smoking, restricted ‘faddy’ diets, lack of sleep, being stressed, travel, ageing and drinking too much alcohol. But, on the flipside, one of the best things we can do to achieve a healthy, diverse gut microbiota is to eat well. If you eat nutritious foods that your ‘good’ gut bugs love to eat, you’re more likely to encourage them to increase their numbers and diversity. 

“The diversity of the average ‘ British diet’ today is lacking and often based on nutrient poor, additive rich ‘ultra- processed’ foods that do our gut microbiota no favours – starving off our friendly microbes.” 

There is no “one-size-fits-all” gut microbiota diet - the foundation for a healthy gut and diverse gut microbiota is to eat a nutritious, well-balanced and varied diet that’s packed with different plant-based foods. This doesn’t mean we need to follow a vegetarian or an ‘in vogue’ vegan diet, but simply let minimally processed fruit, veggies, peas, beans and lentils and other legumes, nuts and seeds, and starchy wholegrain carbohydrates, like wholewheat pasta, granary bread, brown rice and whole oats take centre stage in our diet, as they’re brimming with fibre, prebiotics and plant compounds called polyphenols that help keep our gut and its microbes healthy and well nourished. And don’t forget that plant oils like olive oil, and herbs and spices count too.

Fascinating insights into the complex relationship between our gut microbes, diet, lifestyle and health have shown that gut microbial diversity is higher in those of us who regularly consume a large number of different plant foods. So, challenge yourself to eat 30 or more different types a week, across all six plant food groups (fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds) – your gut microbes will quickly thank you for getting them their favourite fodder! 

Find Your Inner Balance…

Eating well, living well and exercising regularly will help you feel good, and keep your gut health and gut microbes in tip-top shape. So what are you waiting for? Start today, and a healthier gut and healthier you is just around the corner!

The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your GP, Pharmacist or other health professional if you’re struggling with gut symptoms or low immunity, you’re pregnant, on medication or you have a medical condition that means you’re immune suppressed and wanting to boost your friendly gut microbe community with VSL#3. 

References:
British Gut. Available at http://britishgut.org/ Accessed March 2021.
Gut Microbiota for Health. Available at www.gutmicrobiotaforhealth.com Accessed March 2021.
Jefferson A. (2019) Give your friendly gut bacteria a helping hand. British Dietetic Association. Available at https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/give-your-friendly-gut-bacteria-a-helping-hand.html. Accessed March 2021.
Sender R, Fuchs S & Milo R. (2016) Revised estimates for the number of human and bacteria cells in the body. PLoS Biology 14: 1– 14.
Valdes AM, Walter J, Segal E, Spector TD. (2018) Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health. BMJ; 361:k2179.